INSIDIOUS. 104 mins. PG-13. Directed by James Wan. Written by Leigh Whannell.
The trailers for the new throwback horror film, Insidious, grab your attention by stating that "Insidious is..." this or "Insidious is..." that. What they don't say, and what I'm here to tell you now, is that "Insidious is..." scary as shit. Armed with sound cues that blast and rattle you, images that burn their way into your brain, and a near-constant creep factor, this is one wild ride through a haunted house that more than gives audiences their money's worth. It's this generation's Poltergeist.
It may be hard to believe but Insidious comes from the very same writer and director behind the original Saw. This is a marked improvement in every way, and really establishes director James Wan as a leader among his horror filmmaking peers. Gone is the ick-factor of Saw and the brutish, R-rated violence. Insidious is gore-free and proudly PG-13. But if you think you're in for a teen-friendly frightfest, just wait until the Darth Maul-looking demon makes his first appearance. How high can you jump out of your seat?
Wan wisely casts talented actors in the lead roles instead of attractive, fresh-faced unknowns. Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne star as Josh and Renai, a married couple with kids, who find themselves spooked by their new house after one of their sons falls into a coma of sorts. Nothing new there really - we've seen the haunted house shenanigans before - recently even, in movies like Paranormal Activity (that movie's director, Oren Peli, is actually a producer here). The novel twist is that it's not their house that's haunted - it's their boy. And he's not in a coma. He's dream traveling - stuck in a realm known only as "the Further" for months - while demons and other bad spirits circle around him, wanting to take over his body.
Like any good haunted house movie, Josh and Renai enlist the help of a psychic/ghost warrior Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye - perfect) who knows everything about the Further and how to save their son. Audiences have seen Shaye on screen a number of times before. Here, she's miles removed from her indelible performance in There's Something About Mary. There is a terrific scene where she stares at the ceiling above the boy's bed and locks eyes with the demon. Only she can see the demon, and the look on Shaye's face as the camera zooms in and holds steady - fearful, awestruck - is priceless.
Wan shows real command for his craft here. From the opening titles - the words, "INSIDIOUS" are huge while screechy music blares behind them like something out of a Kubrick movie, to the escalating intensity of each new haunting, you can't help but be on edge. Sure, some scenes get away from him: case in point, a promising sequence where Elise communes with the Further denizens while wearing a gas mask is nicely sustained for a few minutes before breaking out into anarchy and dulling its edge.
As the movie nears its conclusion, some audience members may jump ship depending on their tolerance for some of the story twists, but the scares keep right on coming. So much so in fact that for the last five minutes of the movie, one of my audience members had to stand up in the middle of the aisle and shout at the screen ("Get the hell out of there!") in order to relieve the tension building within her. Me? I had to divert my eyes away from the screen a number of times.
Insidious isn't a perfect horror film, but it's a damn good one. It doesn't strive for some false sense of reality like Paranormal Activity. I do wish it had avoided the screw-you ending that so many horror films love to use these days. Seriously - I don't care if you want to end on a happy note or a depressing one. Just give us a real ending and some kind of resolution. It's almost a cliche now to end with one last "everything is safe - wait, no it isn't! Gotcha!" moment. Still, $10 for 104 minutes of scares is a pretty good deal. Don't see it alone.